Sin Nombre (2009, Cary Fukanaga)
A few months ago I reviewed a 1983 film directed by Gregory Nava titled El Norte, which told the story of two siblings, a brother and sister, who make the arduous trek from their small and impoverished Guatemalan town to California in the hopes of starting a new and better life. The film admirably handled the scenes dealing with the difficulties involved in illegally making one’s way to another country and the trials and tribulations of settling down and making a life for one’s self once there. Fast forward 26 years later, and here we are with a film that, at least in its premise, is eerily similar to Nava’s project. This time it’s first time writer and director Cary Fukanaga who, with his film Sin Nombre, explores the stressful and dangerous voyage embarked on by a small group of Hondurans who are putting it all on the line in an effort to migrate to the United States. Some, such as Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) and her father and uncle, are essentially fleeing poverty and chasing dreams. Others, such as a teenage gang member named Casper (Edgar Flores), are literally fleeing to save their lives.
Sin Nombre, contrary to El Norte, takes far more time in setting up the premise and in showing the viewer the lives of the protagonists. Casper is a teen who, with little to no genuine opportunities to make a living or get an education, is a junior member of dangerous gang currently entangled in a turf war. The gang is led by an imposing figure named Lil’ Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejia), a bald, tattooed tough. The only true shining light in his life is his current girlfriend Marha Marlene, although Casper feels the need to keep this relationship a secret in order to protect her. Somewhere else in this same town lives Sayra and her uncle, who are both invited by her father to finally make a run for ‘el norte’, the United States. Clandestine train rides, sneaking around and such, it will be a difficult journey, but ultimately Sayra acquiesces. On the same day Sayra and her family take the train (and by ‘take the train’ I essentially mean they’re sitting on the roof of the train cars with literally hundreds of other people), Casper, Lil’ Mago and their new young protégé Smiley (Kristian Ferrer), take the same train with a plan to rob the illegal passengers on the roof. In a very tense and emotionally charged moment, Casper commits a treacherous act that puts his life in considerable danger, to the point that when Smiley, who has escaped the scene, reports back to the gang, the other members take an oath to track Casper down and kill him in cold blood. Afraid, stressed out beyond belief and now alone, Casper is cautiously approached by Sayra and the two form a bond of sorts while on their way to the U.S.
If the above synopsis feels like it’s missing some information, that was a deliberate choice on my behalf. There are plenty of little details in the setup to this film that add some layers to each character that I would much rather have the curious viewer discover for themselves, so I chose to be as vague as possible while still providing an idea of what happens in the film.
Fukanaga’s directorial debut is, for the most part, quite impressive even though it is far from a perfect film. He handles character moments with a realism that was very nice to see. The entire setup before the attempted train robbery occurs, which effectively putts the characters of Sayra and Caper on the same path, is long, but never overbearing. As opposed to rushing into the thick of the plot, which can be boiled down to the fleeing Sayra and Casper perform in order to escape the gang members who are hunting them down, the film invests a decent amount of running time to developing the essential characters and giving them a three dimensionality that made them feel pretty realistic, especially Casper. Edgar Flores plays Casper very well, bringing an impressive maturity to a role that demands a lot of mixed emotions. He is indeed a gang member at the beginning of the film, but there is a side of him that will only go so far in order to serve the code his brotherhood. He isn’t all bad and there are hints which indicate that perhaps with the smallest of opportunities, he may have made something else of himself instead of a thug in training. There is a nuance in the performance and in the writing for the character. He probably is good at heart, but has several bad strings attached, and if he chooses to do good, the results can turn ugly for him and those he cherishes. He is a ‘broken hero’ type of character, and it’s played to solid effect in the film. There is even a decent amount of time setting up the relationship with Casper and his protégé Smiley, who, at least in the early goings, have a ‘big brother/little brother’ theme going on. This makes their encounter at the end of the film (after the incident on the train) all the more emotionally satisfying. The same cannot be said for Sayra, who isn’t given as much time to develop as a character in the beginning. She is young, seems to be a good girl, takes a certain liking to Casper and chooses to help him out. That’s pretty much it. I think the actress who portrays her, the young Paulina Gaitan, is solid in the role. The problem lies more in the fact that I think writer/director Fukanaga wasn’t sure what kind of person to make her. Her and Casper make a decent team, and in a way, I can understand what kind of dynamic is living itself out. She’s a young teen, she sees this boy who must be around her age make a noble decision that protected her family, he’s not bad looking, and she feels not only an attraction to him, but a need to reciprocate his act. She feels indebted to him and, recognizing that his decision has put his life in danger, wants to protect him and smuggle him with her family into the United States. It’s a decent plot, I wouldn’t argue otherwise, I only think it all happens rather suddenly and doesn’t carry the emotional satisfaction it would have had Sayra been awarded the same careful, well written setup that Casper had.
This leads to the big turning point in the film, a scene that will either have viewers shaking their heads or get them excited for the final act. At one point, Casper, feeling that his days are all but numbered, chooses to get off the train and make a run for it on his own. To his surprise, he quickly realizes that Sayra has opted to tag along with him, leaving her uncle and father back on the train. The big question about this moment is: does the movie earn it? Sayra has only met Casper perhaps 12 hours ago or so, she is aware that his life is in incredible danger and that his presence can prove to be a deadly liability to her life. Despite all this, she chooses to leave her family behind for him, clearly endangering her life for a boy, who for all intents and purposes, really isn’t keen on having her around anyways. This can understandably be a significant problem for several viewers. The upside is that their teaming up for the second half of the film leads to some very solid scenes of them fleeing the blood thirsty gang members and other quieter dialogue scenes as they make their way from rest spot to rest spot. The rest of the movie is still very entertaining, which in a way made me thankful that Sayra made the ridiculous choice to get off the train, but it doesn’t change the fact that is was a really, really odd and dare I say stupid decision. This all comes back again to the writing for her character not being up to par with the effort gone into making Casper a fully fledged person.
*End of major spoilers*
On a technical level, Fukanaga’s debut is an impressive effort, offering excellent realistic scenery. The look and feel of the film is quite gritty and doesn’t do very much to sugar coat the dire situations the characters are in. Nothing is ever attention grabbing or calls attention to itself in the cinematography or editing departments really, but that helps provide the film with a welcome realism that is very well suited for a story of this nature. All in all, it's a very competently shot movie.
The script may have some issues, such as the development that went into the character of Sayra and the fact that, I can’t lie, there is a certain sense of inevitability about how the story will turn out. The climax is well acted and packs a punch, which is a credit to the filmmakers, but it isn’t terribly surprising either. In fact, I can’t say that anything happening displays any remarkable originality. Even the subject matter has been dealt with in film before (El Norte being an obvious case in point). It stands to argue that it’s well acted, well shot and deals with an interesting subject matter. For a directorial debut, I applaud Fukanaga for telling a gritty story in fairly realistic fashion and getting some solid performances out of his actors. I don’t think he takes very chances in his story telling however and even makes one (potential) bad mistake, as discussed briefly above. I think he has the potential to grow into an interesting director and, despite its flaws, Sin Nombre can be used as a case in point for the man’s directorial capabilities.